What to do when someone you love is grieving


There is no good way to start an uncomfortable conversation. And the reality is, it isn’t just the start that can be awkward – it can be the middle and the end of the conversation, as well. When someone you love is grieving, approaching their sadness can feel impossible. Unfortunately, my career necessitates that I be shoulder-deep in others’ grief on an all too frequent basis. From uncertainty of outcomes, anticipated grief for poor prognoses, to world-stopping diagnoses, people in mourning are part of my specialty as an intensive care nurse. We each have our own empathetic methods and coping mechanisms, some of which I will be sharing with you today.

The first thing you should understand is that grief can be caused by many things, and can manifest in many different ways. If your sister loses her job, she may experience a loss of identity and the sorrow that comes along with it. Your coworker may go through a divorce, which will lead to a loss of confidence and companionship. The anguish we associate with grieving isn’t a recipe with a finite list of ingredients; it is a witch’s cauldron of unknown elements, subject to change at any time.

Also, when someone is grieving, they may not show the classic signs that you might associate with misery. Personally, I internalize my sadness. I have seen people who get angry, and people who sob, and people who hide when they are in pain. Use your goddess-given intuition to feel out the vibe and the situation as a whole picture. As a deep aside, you are in the best position to help someone if you understand your own feelings on grief, if you have a solid foundation on your own mental health. However, life chooses inopportune times to throw wrenches in the gears, and we’re all just doing the best we can.


"Use your goddess-given intuition to feel out the vibe and the situation as a whole picture"

Danielle Schadler 

A good starting point is to simply be there. Be present in their darkest hour, and they will be grateful for your support. You don’t even need to say anything. You can just sit, hold their hand. Your silence can speak volumes. If they do feel like talking, your best asset is your ears. Listen. Listen to them, no matter what they start out saying. Let them fill the gaps of quiet, if they are inclined to do so. Ensure that you are not thinking of your next reply while they are still talking. In fact, you may want to practice the habit of waiting three seconds before replying in serious conversations. It can seem like a lifetime, but three seconds can change an entire perception. Fortunately, listening is the easiest part of comforting someone.

Talking, the second step, is more difficult. Some very simple things to remember: you may never understand how the person is feeling, and that’s alright. You may not be able to solve the problem, either. This is also alright; our first instinct as caring humans is to try to solve problems, but this instinct can be misleading. Spouting quips that may feel comforting, like “You’ll be over him in no time!” or “She’s in a better place now.” or “Have you tried [insert seemingly benign yet unhelpful and mundane tactic here]” can often be hurtful. In many cases, a grieving person can never return to 'normal.' Grief can be a lifelong emotion, waxing and waning with time. 

An approach I have learned is to ask, quite simply: “How are you, right now?” Your listening skills must precede and outshine your talking skills. You can effectively comfort verbally if you can assess the person’s current emotional stance. Asking how they are doing, right now, does several things: 1) it makes them aware that you care, 2) it converts the unapproachable subject into a measurable question that they may not have asked themselves lately, and 3) it acknowledges that all parties are aware that life sucks, that the situation sucks, that progress in coping is not a straight line, that you aren’t expecting the cookie cutter answer that they would otherwise feel obligated to give.


"Compassion is a trait we all have the capacity to wield."

Danielle Schadler

From here, there are a few things you can say. A heartfelt “I’m sorry” can be the best option. Because, you probably are sorry. You don’t pity your friend; you just hate to see them hurt. Convey this. Sometimes people need to know they aren’t as isolated and alone as they feel. Obviously, don’t say you’re sorry if you aren’t, and don’t fake an empathetic anecdote. Don’t share your story if the other person is in crisis, only share if it is truly relevant, and try to redirect the other person toward their feelings and sharing. Let the person know that you truly do want to hear them, talk with them. In general, try to focus on feelings, not facts.

A few last important points:

·      Small gestures make a huge difference.

·      Social media DOES count, if used correctly.

·      Discretion should always be considered thoroughly before approaching someone.

·      Pay attention to verbal cues and body language.

·      Do not be offended if the person doesn’t want to talk or doesn’t accept help, comfort, gifts, or advice.       

Compassion is a trait we all have the capacity to wield. Think of it like a muscle, which grows with use. My hope for you is that you will not often be in situations where your comfort is needed, but grief and loss are not bound by the laws of consideration. The bottom line is that if you feel genuinely for the person, it will be transparent and clear to that person. There are an infinite number of right and wrong things to say, but your compassionate presence is the only requirement.   


Danielle SchadlerComment